Racist police practices like mug shots normalize the criminalization of Black Americans

Ending the release of mug shots to the public helps to restore privacy and dignity for people who have been arrested, but it doesn’t transform predatory policing.
Illustration of mugshots with distorted lines and layering.
Mug shots have long functioned much more broadly than pure documentation. Adam Maida / for NBC News
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By Nicole R. Fleetwood, professor of American Studies and Art History at Rutgers University

In the wake of protests against recent police killings of Black people, namely George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Black Lives Matter activists have brought greater attention to the racist origins of U.S. police forces and the systemic racism and anti-Black violence rooted in contemporary policing, from the history of slave patrols in the South to the use of police forces to enforce neighborhood segregation and labor exploitation in the North. These momentous protests, considered the largest social movement in contemporary history, have sparked public conversations about abolishing the police and overhauling the criminal legal system.

To these demands, most police departments and law enforcement agencies have responded with resistance if not outright violence, as we witnessed in Portland, Oregon.

To these demands, most police departments and law enforcement agencies have responded with resistance if not outright violence, as we also witnessed in Portland, Oregon. The San Francisco Police Department took what many in the abolitionist movement would call a “reformist approach,” one that takes some measure toward police accountability but that does not lead to transformative changes in policing. On July 1, the department announced that it would stop the practice of releasing police booking photos, or mug shots, to news media and the public.

In a statement on the department’s website, Chief William Scott explained, “This policy emerges from compelling research suggesting that the widespread publication of police booking photos in the news and on social media creates an illusory correlation for viewers that fosters racial bias and vastly overstates the propensity of Black and brown men to engage in criminal behavior.”

While far more changes are needed, Scott’s statement acknowledges the racist ripple effects of this longstanding tradition. Mug shots have long functioned much more broadly than pure documentation. While they are of course visual indexes of arrested people, they are also part of the collection of biometric data that accumulate in police databases and follow people for the rest of their lives. Moreover, the circulation of mug shots among the public functions as a form of punitive entertainment based in the public shaming of arrested people.

In public life, little thought goes into understanding that the mug shot is a coerced photo of someone arrested, often taken during a moment of crisis, embarrassment and despair. The person arrested and detained may have been charged with a crime but they have not been convicted. Yet, the stigma of the image affixes guilt to the photographed person. They also remain in police files and can be pulled out at later dates when officers are searching for potential suspects.

The history of these photos is based in pseudo-scientific theories that photography could be one tool for helping to classify criminal types, often ethnic, racial and religious minorities of a dominant society. In this regard, they fit within a longer and violent history of systems of racial classification that prioritize the rights and concerns of white property owners.

From the outset, mug shots were meant to circulate among the public. In the 19th century, police departments displayed them in what were called “rogues galleries,” referring to rooms in police precincts where the images could be found. As photography historian Shawn Michelle Smith writes: “Photography has a long-standing relation to policing. Not long after its invention, in 1839, the technology began to be used for the twinned purposes of identification and surveillance.” One of the oldest collections of mug shots in the U.S. is at the Missouri History Museum, and dates from 1857 to 1867. The museum’s collection is an early example of how photographic images would become a part of law enforcement.

News outlets also have a long history of reproducing mug shots and thereby increasing their circulation. Media studies scholars have documented racial biases in news coverage, specifically the way mug shots of Black suspects are displayed. The watchdog organizations Media Matters and Color of Change highlight the way nightly news broadcasts disproportionately represent Black people in crime stories. Such reporting links Black people to criminality. Studies have also shown that newspapers tend to lead with stories involving Black people, especially Black men, and crime and that such reporting has real life outcomes for Black populations broadly.

In recent decades, the circulation of mug shots in online databases, gossip magazines and other forms of popular culture demonstrates the public’s fascination with what sociologist Michelle Brown calls “penal spectatorship” — ways of looking at arrested and imprisoned people as guilty and deserving of punishment.

The circulation of mug shots in popular culture demonstrates the public’s fascination with what sociologist Michelle Brown calls “penal spectatorship.”

Until recently many news outlets maintained online slide shows of mug shots for viewers to peruse as click-bait, often organized by physical attractiveness or embarrassing traits. The Marshall Project writes that these galleries served as “an easy moneymaker for struggling newsrooms: Each reader click to the next image translated to more page views and an opportunity for more advertising dollars.”

In recent times, The Houston Chronicle was one of the first major news outlets to publicly do away with the practice this year, although recently dozens of others have followed suit. (Editor’s note: NBC News has directed its editors and producers to reduce the use of mug shots and use them only when there is a strong editorial reason to do so.)

In a truly cruel practice, some commercial websites force arrested people to pay to have their mug shots removed.

After the passing of John Lewis, the civil rights leader and longtime congressman from Georgia, on July 17, a mug shot of him went viral on social media. It was taken in Jackson, Mississippi, when he was arrested “for using a so-called ‘white’ restroom during the Freedom Rides of 1961.” In the photo, he is smiling with a police booking placard around his neck listing a series of numbers, part of his criminal index.

Lewis was arrested and jailed dozens of times in the 1960s, including a 31-day stint in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm, a state penitentiary established on a former plantation. His numerous booking photos now circulate in posthumous honor of his courage and determination in the fight against racial oppression, with anti-Black police violence being one aspect of the subjugation and terror Black people have endured. His mug shots are also an opportunity for us to reconsider the very notion of what is a crime. For centuries, countless aspects of everyday Black life, of Black existence, have been rendered suspicious and criminal.

While the San Francisco Police Department’s decision to take mug shots out of public circulation is a move in a right direction, activists like myself know it doesn’t go far enough. The circulation and significance of mug shots point to larger structural problems with policing. Harvard professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad states: “Policing, as a system, has been a system of control that sorts people and decides who gets to live and who gets to die with even the mere accusation of criminality. That is not true in white affluent communities.”

Moreover, while mug shots may be on their way out, new technologies are now being deployed for policing, surveillance and imprisonment. Digital technology — such as predictive policing that relies on algorithms to anticipate where crime will take place or who will commit crimes — is steeped in many of the same racist and class-based logic that targets populations most directly affected by the carceral state.

Rogues galleries of the last century have morphed into Chronic Offender Programs in the contemporary era, where risk assessment software identifies people who are monitored by police surveillance tools. These practices are what the Princeton professor Ruha Benjamin calls “the New Jim Code”: how the use of algorithms and digital technologies amplify inequity and make targeted populations more susceptible to punitive state power.

Ending the release of mug shots to the public helps to restore privacy and dignity for people who have been arrested, but it doesn’t transform predatory policing.

Such policing leads to the normalization of treating Black people and targeted groups as criminals in the public imagination. And as we’ve seen with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, the consequences are nothing short of deadly.